Bulletin from Abroad

The next Olympic Games in Ja­pan are un­likely to be smoke-free.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - Anna Fi­field, a New Zealan­der, is Tokyo bureau chief for the Wash­ing­ton Post. ANNA FI­FIELD

Anna Fi­field in Tokyo

It’s seen ev­ery night in Ja­pan at pub-style restau­rants called iza­kayas. Salary­men – the term for the white-col­lar rank and file of the busi­ness world – take off their jack­ets, or­der a draught beer and some chicken on skew­ers and light a cig­a­rette.

It seems hard to be­lieve, but 14 years af­ter New Zealand in­tro­duced a smok­ing ban and more than a decade af­ter Lon­don, New York and Paris did the same, smok­ers can still walk into most bars and many restau­rants in Ja­pan and light up.

Even self-pro­claimed “fam­ily restau­rants” of­ten have only a glass di­vider – if you’re lucky – between the smok­ing and non-smok­ing sec­tions.

Trains, air­ports and of­fice build­ings, in­clud­ing Par­lia­ment, all have in­door smok­ing rooms. There are coin-op­er­ated vend­ing ma­chines for cig­a­rettes on the streets.

It’s in stark con­trast with Ja­pan’s rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing su­per healthy. The na­tional diet con­sists mainly of fish, rice and veg­eta­bles, obe­sity is al­most non-ex­is­tent and people live so long that there are now al­most 70,000 Ja­panese over the age of 100. And the smok­ing rate has been on the de­cline. About a third of men and 10% of women smoke.

But un­for­tu­nately for non­smok­ers, the men who smoke are over-rep­re­sented in the halls of power. The re­sult is that Ja­pan has one of the least-re­stric­tive regimes gov­ern­ing to­bacco use.

No na­tional law bans smok­ing in in­door pub­lic spa­ces. In fact, the most ob­vi­ous re­stric­tions are out­doors, where it’s not un­com­mon to see nosmok­ing signs on the foot­paths or hordes of people puff­ing in des­ig­nated shel­ters in pub­lic places.

As the coun­try pre­pares to host the Rugby World Cup next year and the Olympics in 2020, Ja­panese politi­cians are be­ing pressed to do some­thing about pas­sive smoke.

The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion and the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee have been pro­mot­ing smoke-free events since 2010, and all cities that have hosted the Games since then have com­plied.

The Ja­panese health min­istry has been try­ing to ban in­door smok­ing in pub­lic spa­ces by the time Tokyo hosts the Olympics, but it’s not mak­ing much progress. There’s been wide­spread op­po­si­tion from the to­bacco and res­tau­rant in­dus­tries, not to men­tion politi­cians in­sist­ing on their “right to smoke”.

Then there’s the fi­nan­cial as­pect. The Gov­ern­ment owns a third of Ja­pan To­bacco, the coun­try’s big­gest cig­a­rette pro­ducer, and taxes from cig­a­rettes con­trib­ute about $25 bil­lion a year in rev­enue, Taro Aso, the fi­nance min­is­ter – and a smoker – told the Par­lia­ment last year.

Both Aso and Ja­pan To­bacco have even ques­tioned whether pas­sive smoke is bad for health, even though sec­ond-hand smoke is es­ti­mated to cause 15,000 deaths in Ja­pan each year.

As a re­sult of this op­po­si­tion, the health min­istry has had to wa­ter down its plans. Un­der its lat­est pro­posal, smok­ing will be com­pletely banned in hos­pi­tals and schools from next year, and then from uni­ver­si­ties and gov­ern­ment of­fices. But cus­tomers will be able to con­tinue puff­ing away in most restau­rants and bars.

Anti-smok­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions have de­cried the Gov­ern­ment’s lack of ac­tion, say­ing it’s a na­tional em­bar­rass­ment.

Mind­ful of the ap­proach­ing Olympics, Tokyo gov­er­nor Yuriko Koike tried to act in­de­pen­dently to ban smok­ing in al­most all pub­lic places in the cap­i­tal city, although most restau­rants would be ex­empted if all em­ploy­ees agreed to work in a smok­ing en­vi­ron­ment. As if em­ploy­ees in strictly hi­er­ar­chi­cal Ja­pan would stand up to their bosses.

Any­way, this plan was also sharply crit­i­cised – for be­ing un­fair on smok­ers, not for not be­ing strict enough – so it’s been shelved.

That means the mil­lions of us who live in Tokyo and don’t smoke will be cough­ing and splut­ter­ing in restau­rants for a while longer.

Anti-smok­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions have de­cried the Gov­ern­ment’s in­ac­tion as an em­bar­rass­ment for Ja­pan.

“Sir, you’ve been ran­domly se­lected for a drug test.”

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